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The Mystery of Human Sleep

February 13, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 146

"Why do we sleep?"

Whilst that is very definitely a good question as yet we don't have a clear answer! Although modern science has provided answers to what happens whilst we sleep the question of why we do it in the first place still remains remarkably elusive. Let us consider another question that we almost certainly can answer.

"What happens to our bodies when we are asleep?"

Well first of all it's not just our bodies. Our minds, or brains, need a rest too. During sleep many of the day's events are mulled over, catalogued and put in to "deep" storage via the amygdala for later retrieval from the cortex. Memories are laid down, lessons are learned.

Physically, the act of lying down gives our heart a chance to rest from pumping blood around a machine that was most likely designed to operate on all fours. As well as this essential cell, tissue and muscle repairs are carried out overnight by our body's chemical repair men. We are all familiar with the symptoms of fatigue and sleep deprivation: confusion, nausea, lack of concentration, feeling under par etc., etc. What would happen if we never slept? The simple answer to that is, we would die.

"How do we know this?"

Well, there is a condition called Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI) in which the patient (usually caused by a protein mutation but sometimes spontaneous onset occurs) develops the inability to sleep. This is not to be confused with insomnia where the patient finds it difficult to sleep but eventually falls asleep due to exhaustion. In FFI the patient can never sleep again and eventually dies from exhaustion. I think that pretty much explains that humans do in fact need to sleep but still doesn't explain why.

Why shouldn't we sleep?

Most animals from the fruit fly through to the blue whale do it after all. In fact from an evolutionary point of view it's a distinct disadvantage. Imagine the gift we must have given our predators to be flat out, unmoving, and unconscious for up to eight hours at a time. No wonder most of us are afraid of the dark!

So what is the alternative?

Other creatures have developed novel strategies that protect them when they are resting. Ducks sleep in what could be described as a picket line, with the duck's level of alertness being relative to its position in the line. The ducks at either end of the line are the most alert with the ducks farthest from the ends being the least alert. After each disturbance, the ducks rotate their position so that all little ducks get a good night's sleep!

Cetaceans i.e. large sea mammals like whales, dolphins and porpoises have a slightly different strategy. Being voluntary breathers they need to surface regularly to breathe. How do they manage this whilst being asleep? The answer from research on captive animals seems to be that they rest their brains one half at a time. So one half of the brain rests while the other looks after vital functions and later they reverse this process.

Although I haven't been able to answer the question I set out to I hope I have entertained you and given you an insight into the fascinating world of sleep in humans.

I hope you enjoyed my article for more discussions on the nature of sleep visit me at

Source: EzineArticles
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